Diverse Talent Drives Innovation: A Collision Conference Interview with Rusul Alrubail

by Jason Williams

Collision Conference took place in Toronto, Canada May 20-23. It is North America’s fastest growing tech conference, welcoming 25,000+ participants from 125 countries with 45.7% female attendance.

I had the opportunity to meet with Collision speaker, Rusul Alrubail, at her Toronto-based Parkdale Centre for Innovation.

Can you tell me a bit more about the Parkdale Centre for Innovation?

The Parkdale Centre for Innovation is an incubator and accelerator focused on inclusion & equity in innovation. As a not-for-profit, we focus on supporting entrepreneurs to start, grow and scale their business. We also support people who are in the middle of career transition or who are looking to get out of their 9-to-5 and start a business.

What is your role here at the Parkdale Centre?

I am the Executive Director and I am a founder as well.

The Parkdale Centre is less than a year old. What led you to open this facility?

I was part of the innovation and entrepreneurship space a couple of years ago always felt like there is a lack of opportunity and support for people who are from my background: women, visible Muslim women as well. I felt like there’s a lack of opportunity when people are looking to start a business, especially when it comes to traditional incubators and innovation spaces here in Toronto. I moved to the Parkdale neighborhood a couple of years ago and was in the midst of a career transition myself. I was working on a writing project, but I put that on pause and really wanted to figure things out. I found this building and felt like maybe there’s an opportunity to start a community hub where people like myself and people who have other barriers can come in and start to grow and scale their business and have the right support for them.

Are there any similar initiatives in this city that you’re aware of?

No. When I started this, I had already done research and had been in the entrepreneurship and innovation space for quite some time. I hadn’t seen or encountered this type of space before. Last year, we had a chance to visit Chicago and I had the amazing opportunity to visit the people at 1871. Being there was so inspiring because it was still the early stages for Parkdale Centre. We were open but had only been open for about a month. I visited 1871 and just saw the fact that their focus on inclusion and equity was so heavy it is actually included in some of their programming. They have programs specifically for people of color who are entrepreneurs. And even the space itself is so welcoming with different accommodations. For example, they have a prayer room as well as a nursing room. That really inspired me to keep going and help build that space here at Parkdale Centre.

Thinking about Chicago, there is concern right now about gentrification in some of the downtown areas. Specifically, the Fulton Market District that has seen corporations like Google move in. The neighborhood of Parkdale sits next to Liberty Village in Toronto that has experienced similar growth. What is that challenge as you sit in the shadows of an area that does get all the attention from the tech companies?

I like the way that you put it, in the shadows of these innovation companies. It’s been a challenge definitely; however, our community right now is so closed off when it comes to access to these technologies and innovations. I’ve been a little grateful that some companies, not a lot, but some companies from Liberty Village have reached out to see what some of the ways are they can support Parkdale Centre and bridge those gaps. There are always opportunities for sponsorships, scholarships, grants, mentorship, volunteering and just sharing their expertise. I’m hoping that in the future there will be more of these kinds of partnerships that we can create together. We have limited resources here at Parkdale and there’s always room for support.

What is something you wish people knew about Parkdale Centre and the community you’re serving?

The talents that are born and come here to Parkdale Centre shouldn’t be underestimated. The fact is that diverse talent is one of the drivers to create this innovation economy to be more accessible, more inclusive and more thriving. We often get a lot of pushback for the fact that we are supporting under-represented people: visible minorities and low income. However, people underestimate the businesses that are coming out of the founders and startups here at Parkdale Centre. I wish people got to know our talent. Not to underestimate them, but to empower them to be their best selves.

“Diverse talent is one of the drivers to create this innovation economy.”

Who are you excited about that is starting something here at the center?

I just met with a founder here taking our program, her name is Elizabeth. She’s a woman herself, is over 50 and is building out this mentorship program that’s amazing. It’s a social enterprise that hopefully we can pilot here at the center because we always have mentorships and it’s a huge component of what we do. Another founder is designing her own baby carrier. A woman who started this business and now she wants to take it to the next level. We have a lot of tech companies. Tech-driven companies who are building their own apps. We have about 3 startups building different coupon apps. In fact, we have a demo day coming up where the founders will be presenting their businesses here at the center.

At Collision Conference you are joining a panel to talk about inclusion in the workforce. What is the main message you would like to get across there?

The panel is focused on building inclusive communities and I think the main message is the fact that there is so much under-represented talent often being pushed to the margins. There is so much that we can do as organizations, as companies, as individuals to empower people from these groups. We can empower them by amplifying their voice, building their confidence, and connecting them with people that they need to be connected to. It’s about believing in the fact that these people can make a difference.

In your words, how do you define innovation?

Innovation is how you’re able to see things differently. Social innovation is when you take innovation and want to make a difference with it to impact people’s lives.

Photo Credits: 23 May 2019; Rusul Alrubail, Executive Director, Parkdale Centre for Innovation, on Startup University Stage during day three of Collision 2019 at Enercare Center in Toronto, Canada. Photo by Sam Barnes/Collision via Sportsfile

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Jason Williams is the Executive Director at Centric , an Indianapolis-based nonprofit that connects, educates and celebrates innovation-minded thinkers in an effort to improve the success rate of innovation in Indiana. Connect with him on Twitter @jawbrain.


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